Britain's superbly eccentric import John Hurt is a perfect example of how huge, wondrous gifts can come in small, unadorned packages. His magnetic, often bedeviled portraits have touched the souls of film-goers internationally for over four decades, and there seems to be no end to the depth of this man's talent. Stretching the boundaries every which way but loose, he continues to be an acting textbook in the art of metamorphosis.
This transatlantic talent was born John Vincent Hurt on January 22, 1940 in Shirebrook, a coal mining village near the busy market town of Chesterfield, in Derbyshire, England, to a parish vicar and a one-time actress. The youngest of three children, he spent much of his childhood in solitude. Demonstrating little initiative, he was guided into art as a possible direction. The family moved to Grimsby when he turned twelve and, despite an active early passion in acting, his parents thought less of it and enrolled him at the Grimsby Art School and St. Martin's School of Art where he showed some flourish. When he couldn't manage to get another scholarship to art school, his focus invariably turned to acting.
Accepted into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, John made his stage debut in 1962 and remained there in typically offbeat form such plays as "Infanticide in the House of Fred Ginger". An odd, somber, pasty-looking fellow with an aquiline nose (injured while playing sports) and a mass of Irish freckles, he was hardly leading man material. His earlier focus as a painter, however, triggered a keen skill in the art of observation and it certainly advanced his talent for getting into the skin of his characters. His movie debut occurred that same year with a supporting role in the ill-received British "angry young man" drama Young and Willing (1962).
Appearing in various mediums, John increased his profile (and respect) appearing in such theatre plays as "Inadmissible Evidence" (1965), "Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs" (1966), a role he later took to film as Little Malcolm (1974), "Macbeth" (as Malcolm) (1967) and "Man and Superman" (1969), while finding prime parts in such films as A Man for All Seasons (1966), a role he was given after director Fred Zinnemann saw his stellar work in "Little Malcolm." He continued on the stage as an unlikely Romeo in 1973, and went on to garner great applause in Pinter's "The Caretaker" and "The Dumb Waiter", as well as "Travesties" (1974).
It was TV, however, that displayed the full magnitude and fearless range of his acting instrument. In the mid-70s he gained widespread acclaim for his embodiment of the tormented gay writer and raconteur Quentin Crisp in the landmark TV play The Naked Civil Servant (1975) (TV), adapted from Crisp's autobiography. Way, way ahead of its time, Hurt's bold and unabashed take on the flamboyant and controversial gent who dared to be different was rewarded with the Emmy and the British TV Awards. Far and away one of the most marvelous creations ever captured on the small screen, he was altogether unsettling, unappetizing and unforgettable. Audiences cringed but were mesmerized at the same time -- like a car wreck. He WAS Quentin Crisp.
Doors immediately opened for John. He was handed the best parts film and TV had to offer. Once again he was strikingly disturbing as the cruel and crazed Roman emperor Caligula in the epic TV masterpiece "I, Claudius" (1976). The chameleon in him then displayed a polar side as the gentle, pathetically disfigured title role in The Elephant Man (1980), and when he morphed into the role of a tortured Turkish prison inmate who befriends Brad Davis in the intense drama Midnight Express (1978), he was barely recognizable. The last two films earned Hurt Oscar nominations. Mainstream box-office films were offered as well as art films. He made the most of his role as a crew member whose body becomes host to an unearthly predator in Alien (1979). Who can forget the film's most notorious scene as the creature explodes from Hurt's stomach and scurries away into the bowels of the spaceship?
Along with fame, of course, came a few misguided ventures generally unworthy of his talent. Such brilliant work as his steeple chase jockey in Champions (1984) or kidnapper in The Hit (1984) was occasionally offset by such drivel as the comedy misfire Partners (1982/I) with 'Ryan O'Neal (I)' in which Hurt looked enervated and embarrassed. But those were very few and far between.
As for the past couple of decades, the craggy-faced actor continues to draw extraordinary notices. Tops on the list includes his prurient governmental gadfly who triggers the Christine Keeler political sex scandal in the aptly-titled Scandal (1989); the cultivated gay writer aroused and obsessed with struggling "pretty-boy" actor Jason Priestley in Love and Death on Long Island (1997); and the Catholic priest embroiled in the Rwanda atrocities in Beyond the Gates (2005).
His rich tones have also been tapped into frequently with a number of animated features and documentaries, often serving as narrator. Presently married to his fourth wife, genius is often accompanied by a darker, more self-destructive side and Hurt was no exception with alcohol being his choice of poison. He has since recovered. He has two children from his third wife.